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Close Encounters of the Nightmare Kind

You may be in bed at home, in a car, or outside somewhere, when you are disturbed by strange bodily vibrations or sounds, some kind of light, a sense of paralysis, the close-up sighting of an odd craft, or the appearance of one or more humanoid beings. Experiencing varying degrees of anxiety, you are taken against your will, floated through walls, doors, windows or out of your car, into a room that contains computerlike and other technical equipment. There may be several rooms in the craft, or whatever it is, and more strange beings are seen bu`sily moving around doing tasks you don't really understand. These tasks may involve surgical or sexual procedures on you. Some time later you find yourself back where you started, often with a sense of some time having elapsed. You may believe you were abducted by aliens.


(The nightmare – Henry Fuseli 1781)


I'm a hypnotherapist and a researcher of intuition and altered states of consciousness. I've encountered reports of abduction and, to be honest, have been somewhat hesitant to believe they are real. I see correlations between the abduction experience and what I've encountered with hypnosis and in other altered states. As I researched the abduction phenomena, my critical viewpoint changed. I now am less certain than I was before about the nature of this experience. I'm more inclined to believe it's real, but not in the same way our physical world is real. I don't believe we will be able to explain it away any time soon.

There is a great deal of similarity between abduction reports and historical encounters with the devil, angels, the 'old hag,' succubuses, and incubuses who have terrorized unwilling humans. These 'nightmare' experiences are a recurring theme in our history. Many cultures recognize this phenomena and believe it has its source in the spirit world. They attribute it to ghosts, dead children, evil spirits, or other non-physical entities (s1) There are written reports of such experiences from as early as 400 BC in Greece. The extra-terrestrial interpretation is a new twist that emerged around the same time as satanic ritual abuse stories and 'flying disk' encounters after the second world war. Though the scientific community believes all this is fantasy, most experiencers believe they are perceiving something real and meaningful. The fact that this phenomena does exhibit a stable pattern over a long time period, in a variety of cultural settings has not been explained.

The materialist perspective tries to explain it with physical causes. Early in the 19th century it was thought to be gastric disturbances, noxious undigested vapours rising to the head and irritating the nervous system. Currently there are many hypothesis; mental dysfunction, birth trauma (hence the medical aspects of the experience), 'intrusions' of right-hemisphere neurological activity into the left-hemisphere, hypnagogic flashes elaborated into pseudo-memories, or false memories created by hypnotic suggestion. However, abductees are consistently shown to be mentally healthy and non-traumatized, and only a small portion have been been hypnotized.

Sleep paralysis (SP) is currently the most popular physical explanation. SP is a normal physiological phenomena that over 50% of people experience. It occurs most commonly in the hypnagogic state, the threshold between waking and sleeping. We all pass through this state every day. When we're asleep in the REM state, the physical body is immobilized: we don't notice it since our awareness is elsewhere. SP occurs when we have conscious awareness along with REM activity in the brain. People with heavy workloads, or altered sleep schedules seem more likely to experience SP. Nurses with their varying schedules and long hours are likely candidates. Anxiety raises the chance of experiencing sleep paralysis as does mid to late term pregnancy.

David Hufford's (s2) extensive study of the supernatural Hag experience (a nightmare experience that is connected to SP) suggests four basic elements: impression of wakefulness, paralysis, the physical setting accurately perceived, and fear or dread. Secondary features are numerous including a sense of presence, hearing sounds, the appearance of an attacker, a sense of movement, sensation of pressure, respiratory difficulty, smelling odors, vibration, sexual arousal, dying or threat of death, and even physical marks left on the body. All of these features have been reported with abduction phenomena. They are all also associated with normal hypnagogic experiences, with the possible exception of physical cut, bleeding and implants reported by abductees. I have personally experienced many of these secondary features individually and in combination with the four basic elements. They occurred at various times throughout the course of my life, sometimes when I was fully awake.

There are some differences though, with the abduction experience. Whereas SP is sometimes stopped by the experiencer, there are not reports of the abduction experience being interrupted. Also, there is a doorway amnesia with abduction accounts. Memories of the actual moment of entry are hard to recall, even under regression hypnosis. This is an important point, and may relate to shifting states of consciousness. I suspect I haven't been mystified by my experiences because, once I returned to normal consciousness, I always experienced a connection to ordinary reality. I believe if one missed that step, then there would be no way to know if the event was real or imagined, internal or external. John Mack, the Harvard Psychiatrist who is one of the most well known proponents of the abduction experience, counters that no combination of sleep paralysis explains phenomena such as alien sightings by school children in Zimbabwe who are wide-awake. (s3)

But physical scientists offer an explanation for this too. Many anomalous experiences and sleep paralysis episodes might be related to the earth's geomagnetic field. A number of studies have found that these experiences occur when geomagnetic activity is relatively low. Researchers such as Paul Devereux believe that such electromagnetic anomalies might be associated with tectonic stresses within the Earth's crust. These forces might have a strong enough effect to create similar effects in people in normal waking consciousness. The psychologist Michael Persinger has correlated areas of high earthquake activity to UFO activity and apparitions. He has recreated effects similar to other anomalous experiences – near-death, oobe, and haunting – in his laboratory using magnetic field pulses.

But the fact that these experiences can be recreated by stimulating the brain doesn't mean the original events are caused by the brain. Even the experience of our normal reality can be vividly recreated by electrical stimulation in the brain. Neurologists d'Aquili and Newberg have mapped the brain activity occurring in the unitary states of meditation, which are as difficult to verify as the abduction experience. (s4) But they're careful to say, "…it is a foolish reductionism indeed that states that because hyperlucid unitary consciousness can be understood in terms of neuropsychological processes, it is therefore derivative from baseline reality. Indeed, the reverse argument could be made just as well." The brain may be hardwired to have these kinds of altered state experiences in the same way we are built to recognize something as tangible as a tree.

The problem with the physical explanations is that they deny the actual experiences of the people involved. As David Hufford says, most researchers "have not seriously considered the possibility that the folk observations could be basically accurate: that the victims are awake and that they do hear and see and feel odd-sounding things… Even the most preposterous explanation should not prevent us from seriously considering an observation repeatedly made by large numbers of our fellow humans, whatever their education. It was just such a rejection of untutored observation that delayed for so long the "scientific" discovery of giant squid, gorillas, meteors, and any number of other wild and wonderful phenomena." He goes on to say, "The specific contents of the (Hag) experience, however, have not been explained. They seem if anything more odd than they did before. If they are related to ordinary dreams by the presence of REM physiology, why is their content so consistently the same without apparent regard for culture?"

How we interpret this phenomena seems to have a lot to do with our personal beliefs, as well as our current cultural views. Some psychiatric studies have suggested that some nightmare experiences are an indication of actual sexual trauma. This is particularly the case with the association to the bedroom and the sexual undertones. The scripts of abduction reports often read like a classic recovery of childhood abuse. John Mack believes there is not a single abduction case, that has turned out to have masked a history of sexual abuse or any other traumatic cause. Rather memories of sexual abuse may be masked abduction experiences. A different investigator may conclude they're from satanic ritual abuse. Each of these interpretations is based on the investigators particular beliefs.

Investigators often use hypnosis to facilitate the remembering of abduction experience. Critics of hypnosis say that the abductees are led into recalling a memory that coincides with the beliefs of the researcher. Mack believes the use of relaxation techniques and hypnosis can help therapeutically to release the powerful emotions held within the individual, and that the experiences reported bear the mark of authenticity due to their high emotional content. I have seen strong emotional memories arise in my practice and it is a powerful experience to bear witness to. But there is also debate as to how accurate are the specific memories associated with strong emotions. I believe that though the specific content of the memories may change, the emotions themselves are very real and meaningful.

Initially, the powerful emotions reported in abduction, Hag, and other anomalous experiences can be terrifying. But, when experiencers accept them, along with whatever memories they have, they often move through a process of transformation. The experience has a powerful effect on the person's life. It doesn't matter whether or not the particular scenario being reported is true. To the abduction experiencer the event is often felt to be more real and meaningful than ordinary reality. This corresponds with d'Aquili and Newberg's findings, "People who have experienced (unitary states), and this includes some very learned and previously materialistic scientists, regard it as being more fundamentally real than baseline reality. Even the memory of it is for them more fundamentally real… If the sense of certainty of the objective reality of that state is how we judge it's reality, then these altered state experiences win hands down." Though these kinds of experiences are usually very brief they carry more meaning than our consistent experience of 'baseline' reality.

In another culture than ours, the abduction experience may be welcomed as a powerful shamanic initiation. When that happens, the initiate's whole reality is deconstructed, sometimes forcefully, with fear, pain, and a complete dissolution of the ego. Then there are perceptions of a whole new reality and new abilities are discovered, like communicating with these other realities, telepathic knowing, and healing. The abduction experience has a similar reality-shocking content. Abductees who embrace their experiences, even reluctantly, often experience a transformation in their world view. The tendency for this kind of radical transformation may be hardwired into us, as part of our biological evolution.

That might partly explain why the abduction experience is so common in America. Here we are bereft of a cultural container for this shamanic tendency. When it occurs the experiencer is forced to go it alone. The therapist or hypnotist that helps 'uncover' the experience provides a safe place for the person to experience his own psychic maturation. Abductees that go through this process become less self-centered, and more concerned with the plight of other people and the world. Fully integrating the experience seems to involve accepting that there is some other dimension that is just as real as the physical. In most indigenous cultures it is assumed that there are other levels of reality and that there can be communication with these other places and beings. Even the word 'extra-terrestrial' indicates our separation from other levels of reality to which we may be intimately connected.

The abduction phenomenon may be one among a number of anomalous phenomena that are forcing us to realize that something real exists beyond the three-dimensional universe. Sometimes these realities seem to physically cross over into this one: bruising or scarring does occur on the physical body to the extreme of religious stigmata, circles are formed in wheat fields, Bigfoot prints appear in a freshly plowed field, and balls of light and strange craft appear in the sky. Jung wondered if some of these manifestations might be 'materialized psychisms' from the collective unconscious (another alternate reality). (s5) He said, "It is difficult, if not impossible, to form any correct idea of these objects because they behave not like bodies but like weightless thoughts." Considering what we're learning from quantum physics, our thoughts and inner experiences are not weightless but can have a strong physical affect. Even if some of the physical manifestations mentioned above have electromagnetic correlates, they may still have meaning that goes beyond the physical. What abductees experience may be real even though the 'extra-terrestrial' they encounter may never be as physically tangible as other people we encounter.

My personal belief is that the high emotional content of these experiences and the fascination
we have for them indicates they are meaningful, individually and culturally. The actual stories we report may be metaphorical or symbolic representations of internal experiences and they may be accurate reports of other realities. The strong emotions may be how we experience that other dimension. These emotions are more real and have more staying power than experiences derived from our strictly physical reality. That we can have these other reality experiences with our physical brains indicates they were designed to do so. We were meant to break out of this physical reality into a larger perspective. We can deny that these other realities exist, but we can't stop experiencing them. They are a vital aspect of who we are.

Some readers may be considering whether they wish to elect to "go along with" a paralysis attack or an abduction experience if they should have one. Some researchers advise strongly against it, citing how emergency psychiatric treatment is at times sought by people who choose to go in deeper and then get cold feet. If these experiences are truly transformative, they will be dangerous to your old self, the part that doesn't believe in other worlds, realities, or forms of consciousness. So beware, transformation often comes after we move through the fear and the loss of self. Of course, once you experience that other reality you may never look back. The experiences I've had, though never as full-blown as an abduction, have fascinated me and left me wanting more. If you do go, take notes along the way.
On the lighter side, if you feel you are a likely candidate for abduction, there is a London insurance brokerage (Goodfellow Rebecca Ingrams Pearson) that sells alien-abduction insurance policies. But there's no guarantee you'll be the same person when you return.

Patrick Marsolek is a Clinical hypnotherapist and the director of the Inner Workings Resources. See Inner Workings Resources for more information.

1 – The nightmare experience, sleep paralysis, and witchcraft accusations. – Owen Davies – Folklore, August 2003 v114 i2 p181(23)
2 – The terror that comes in the night. – David Hufford
3 – Passport to the cosmos. – John Mack
4 – Liminality, Trance, and unitary States in ritual and meditation – by Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg – Studia Liturgica Vol. 23 (1993) 2–34
5 – Flying saucers: a modern myth of things seen in the sky. – Carl Jung